Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Economic Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis Part II

Part II

The 10 Commandments begin with the mandate that we have no other gods before God. This is a Commandment that most preachers pretty much blow off because we don’t have too many worries about Zeus or Apollo these days. The First Commandment, leading into the Second Commandment, is a declaration of not having false gods and not creating pagan images. Part of the economic crisis we are experiencing as a nation, however, is because we have done just that. We have dueling pagan images of Socialism and Capitalism in battle with each other----and both worshiped.

Both Socialism and Capitalism have, at their core, and at their highest octane, people who are their spiritual, and I use the word spiritual very, very loosely, parents.

People are well aware of Karl Marx. It was his writings that created the foundation for Communism in Russia, Eastern Europe, and ultimately China, North Korea, and Vietnam, to name a few. But Marx’s influence went further than that. Much of what he theorized was that as some in a society grew wealthier and wealthier, and the gap between rich and poor grew, the bottom would overthrow the top. His solution, of course, was to share equally amongst everyone. No one would get rich and no one would be poor. Everyone would be the same.

For people at the bottom of the economic ladder, Marx’s words were wonderful. They found great hope in his system and embraced it.

Portions of Christianity embraced much of what Karl Marx had to say as well. Through the 1960's and 1970's many within Mainline Protestantism and within Roman Catholicism were determined to blend the teachings of Karl Marx and Jesus Christ. People embraced Luke’s words in Acts of the Apostles of the people in the early church sharing everything in common as a portent that God wanted people to live in a communal environment and embraced Socialism as a way to do this. In Latin America this was played out with Liberation Theology and seen very clearly when a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest was one of the leaders in the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua.

There were and are three huge problems with all of this.

First, Marx was not a person of faith. He was not only an atheist but he was almost an evangelical atheist in the fact that he preached diligently against religious faith, calling it the opium of the masses. Marx’s faith was strictly in people and his system. Beyond that, there was no other being.

Secondly, Marx embraced the idea that an armed revolution was not only acceptable, but a good idea. He felt that the only way the lower class could overcome the higher class was through violent revolt.

Thirdly, Marx’s system was based on the premise that everyone was going to be equal. The problem is, however, that some people end up being more equal than others. People do tend to gravitate to groups and classes and Communism was completely totalitarian and there existed brutal leaders and people who were forced into submission. Stalin and Mao, for example, did not consider themselves anyone’s equal and to question them meant death.

Marx does not blend well with Christianity. People attempt to justify violence in God’s name all the time but the fact that they attempt to justify it does not mean that they are successful at it.

Marxism has more problems however.

First, it does, by its very nature, have a great ability to cut off human motivation. Working hard to get ahead, getting a higher education to achieve something greater, is lost in Socialism. If a person works eight hours a day and is highly productive, and a person works two hours a day and goofs off most of that time, fairness seems to dictate that they both ought to receive benefits in light of their contributions instead of receiving the same. Why should a person work harder if there is ultimately no benefit?

Secondly, within Christianity, the idea of communal living exists in some segments, but not many. Roman Catholic religious orders live communally, but they do so very much by choice. They take a vow of poverty and all live very much in the same manner. They also take vows to each other and to God and they seek to excel on behalf of God and one another. Through the centuries different groups in Christianity have done likewise and this has been fine. Christianity, however, does not particularly espouse everyone having everything in common. It does espouse caring for the less fortunate----it actually demands it. The rich have a responsibility to the poor within Christianity; helping those in need is a tenet of faith, not a mandate of society.

Thirdly, Socialism as, at is core, anti-faith. Marx would have seen himself very much as a humanist. It is impossible to embrace Socialism in a pure manner and be a person of faith.

On the converse of this, however, is the pagan of Capitalism. Capitalism has been birthed and nurtured by many, but the most recent ‘mother’ of the current way Capitalism is practiced is Ayn Rand. Rand, who was Russian, saw the truly dark side of Communism and reacted in a totally opposite manner.
Rand’s philosophical concept, which she called Objectivism, which she defined as this in Atlas Shrugged.

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

Her philosophical perspective was completely Libertarian and absolute laissez-faire capitalism. People are free to do whatever they want with whomever they want, and as long as there is total consent, no one, especially no government, has any right to exercise control over them.

The same is true of business. To her, the government had no role whatsoever with business. It was the moral right, even purpose, of business, to make as much money as they can with no outside constraints. Taxation, from Rand’s perspective, was pretty much a moral evil. Her mind set was simple. Leave people alone.

If people are poor, from Rand’s point of view, that is their own problem and that is their own moral failing. Society has no obligation to help them. In fact, society is actually committing a moral ill in aiding impoverished people. People, according to Rand, are responsible and accountable only to themselves and no others. If they fail, they fail and society has no obligation toward them. It us truly the survival of the fittest.

For people of means Rand sounds good. Little or no taxes. Make as much money as you want as you have no responsibility for others. Your personal achievement is a moral good. Those who are impoverished are victims of themselves and since everyone has their own personal responsibility, living up to this is up to a person.

Randian philosophy is very present in our modern day culture. I knew a man in a church I served in New Jersey in the early 1980's who espoused and wrote extensively on supply side economics. He based his economic theories on the philosophy of Ayn Rand. While he was devoutly Christian, he embraced her teachings on economics almost absolutely. He went on and was an advisor to President Ronald Reagan, and Congressman Jack Kemp who also embraced this economic theory.

People who listen to Rush Limbaugh are listening to a great deal of Randian philosophy. Rush doesn’t mention this, but his philosophical mind set is very clear.

Rand offers theological problems as well.

First, like Marx, Ayn Rand was a militant, evangelical atheist. Like Marx, she did not have a live and let live attitude toward religion. She found it to be almost diabolical because of its constant teaching of altruism which she felt to be downright sinful. Religious faith was contrary to what she was about and what she believed.

Secondly, from the perspective of Christianity, her teaching is appalling. There are two clear moral teachings in the Gospels; namely to embrace the unembraceable and to care for the less fortunate. This is an irreconcilable difference.

Ironically, like Marx, Rand has found a voice within Christianity. It is incredibly interesting to listen to some in the Religious Right (I’m being careful to use the word ‘some’ because it truly is only ‘some,’ like it was only ‘some’ in the Mainline who embraced Marx.) who talk like Jesus being pro-business, pro-low taxes, pro-limited government.

I have listened (and read) things from people who call themselves ‘conservative Christians’ who speak economically like Ayn Rand and are Libertarians on things that they want to be Libertarians on. On Tuesday they will march to protect gun rights because the government has no right to seize their guns; on Thursday they will march against gay rights because God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because God is against homosexuality. (To say that Sodom and Gomorrah is about God being against homosexuality is comparable to saying “Saving Private Ryan” is a beach story, but this is for another day.)

But enough on this.

My premise continues that our current economic crisis is, at its core, a spiritual crisis. I spoke of individualism and greed as part of the problem and today our focus on Socialism and Capitalism as gods is part of the problem.

Economic theories are not, by their very nature, sacred. They are theories and if history has told us anything it is this. All governments one day collapse. We talk about the ‘youth’ of the United States but the reality is that our system of government, and our existing structure, is one of the oldest in the world right now. While there are nations far older than us, our current structure is one of the oldest in existence. It has survived because society has kept adapting itself.

But now we are in a crisis of competing ideologies that have become so ingrained that they almost appear to be sacred. They are not. We will have great difficulties in solving much of anything if we give Marx or Rand more power than they deserve. Much of the debate we are having right now is actually a pagan debate of ideologies disguising itself as religious. It is not, and until we recognize this, we will continue to be at a loss.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Economic Crisis is a Spiritual Crisis Part I

Something largely unspoken about the current economic crisis that is taking place in our nation is this. It is, at its very core, a spiritual crisis more than anything else. On one level it is about derivatives, interest rates, taxes, mortgages, retail sales, and stock prices, but on the other hand it is actually a deeply spiritual crisis. It speaks, on so many levels, about a people who have gotten lost.

The problem is not a simple problem and is has several components.

The first is the problem of individualism.

I often here Christians talk about having a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ When queried I am told that this is in the Bible. There is a funny thing about this, however. The word ‘personal’ is not in the New Testament. For that matter, the word ‘relationship’ is not in the New Testament either. Neither is the word ‘individual.’ While there is significant information in talking to and about individuals within the New Testament, the main thrust of the New Testament is not about individualism and individuals in response to God, but about the community, namely the Christian Church.

Within the Old Testament, Judaism is clearly, and fundamentally a communal religion. As Christianity evolves from Judaism there are significant theological changes, but the foundation is one of community. Judaism has widely maintained that strong sense of community; a sense that Christianity has been significantly looser about.

The Bible begins with Genesis and there is a seminal question in Genesis. After Cain slew his brother Abel, God queries Can about the whereabouts of Abel. Cain responds with a question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The rest of the Bible answers that question in the affirmative. We are keepers of our sisters and brothers.

The other morning CNBC’s Rick Santelli sort of led what many people are calling the Chicago Tea Party when he ragingly asked the traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange if they wanted to pay for their neighbor’s bad mortgages. They all booed. I took that as a ‘no.’ (It was, on a side note, rather ironic, that he didn’t ask them if they were willing to accept bail out money for their companies that had blundered in the market, aiding and abetting the current crisis.)

He also failed to ask them how they were going to deal with their defaulting neighbors who were defaulting on their mortgages and vacating houses in neighborhoods, driving the cost of homes way, way down. The reality is that I don’t want to pay tax dollars to bail people out but I also don’t want to lose the investment in my home as people default. The short answer is that we are all in this together and people are all going to pay the bill one way or another. But I digress.

Santelli’s rage was real as was the rage of the people on the floor. It is a rage many people do share. The question however is this. Are we the keeper of our brothers and our sisters? Are we responsible for each other? From the perspective of 2000 years of Christian teaching, and from the Bible itself, the answer is that we very much are responsible for each other. We can debate how we live out that responsibility towards one another politically, but if we espouse Christianity, are ARE responsible for each other.

A second spiritual issue is the issue of greed. That great line in the movie “Wall Street,” is simple: “Greed is good.”

I do understand this. There is much about greed that drives an economy. When we want that bigger, nicer house, or car, or computer, or article of clothing, part of what drives our desire is a certain amount of greed. The fast food industry is a magnificent example of this. When I was growing up and you want to one of the burger places, a hamburger was a 1-2 ounce piece of meat with condiments. Now you can purchase half a steer topped with a quarter of a pig and two pails of milk (turned into cheese) with condiments, on a bun. And, of course, to go with this, there is a pound of fries with a liter of soft drink to wash it all down. Ever since the fast food industry understood greed they grew in leaps and bounds. People desire more.

Several years ago there was a huge rage over what was called the Prayer of Jabez. In 1 Chronicles 4:10 it says:

Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border (or territory), and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!" And God granted what he asked.

The prayer was used at business meetings (and preached from pulpits) as a statement of God’s desire for people to have great prosperity. “Enlarge my border/territory,” was interpreted as increasing one’s sales or geographic territory for sales or even purchasing a larger house on a bigger lot. The prayer of Jabez was actually a prayer by Jabez asking God to widen his heart to be more generous and the prayer was corrupted into being about greed.

There is much spoken about the so-called Prosperity Gospel. Here is the painful reality of the Prosperity Gospel. There isn’t one. It is a mutation of the real Gospel and as valid as a $3.00 bill. Jesus did not preach a Gospel, even remotely, of economic prosperity. Jesus demonstrated an amazing indifference to taxes, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s,” and his advice to the rich young man was to take “ALL he had and give it to the poor.” If a person ever tells you that he or she takes every word of the Bible totally literally, ask them about that passage and watch them wiggle and finesse.

More later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Children at Play

In reading about the process of the creation and passing of the stimulus bill I cannot help but come to a sense that we are poorly served by many people in our Congress. It seems that they ought to post a sign outside the House Chamber that reads:

Children at Play

I do not know of this bill is a good one. I have listened to enough experts disagree that I cannot determine if it is a good thing or a bad thing; even if it is too large or too small. There seem to be very few answers.

There is not a great deal to trust on the political front. From the Democratic perspective, this bill has to work because it is contrary to everything that the Republicans have been telling us. This kind of bill, this kind of spending, we have been told, is a bad way to attempt to stimulate the economy. For the Democrats, this bill HAS to work for them to not look foolish.

From the Republican perspective, of course, it’s quite the opposite. This bill is contrary to everything they have been telling us and everything that have to believe. If this bill does work it makes them look bad. For them, this stimulus HAS to fall for them not to look like fools.

What disturbs me more than anything else, however, was and is the conduct of the two major leaders in the House of Representatives, namely Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner. Pelosi is from San Francisco and Boehner represents the region right next to where I used to live in Ohio so he’s someone I am well familiar with.

From my perspective both Pelosi and Boehner have several things in common.

The first is that they are both totally partisan. I do not get a sense that either of them particularly worry about the rightness or wrongness of something or the virtues and the vices of any plan in particular other than how it plays out politically. They both seek first to have themselves and their party to look good, secondly, to make their opposition look bad, and then about the issues themselves. Keep in mind, these are leaders....

The second thing they both have in common is an incredible lack of maturity. Pelosi, from all reports, lost it with Harry Reid over Senate compromises on the stimulus package. When the compromises between the two branches of Congress were announced, noticeably missing from the scene was Nancy Pelosi.

And John Boehner showed was just breathtakingly petulant on the House floor when he took the bill, whined about it being over 1000 pages, and dropped it on the floor with an incredibly and obviously specious outrage. I am trying to determine what this kind of moronic display is supposed to prove.

There are many things that I do not know. The experts cannot tell us for sure if the stimulus bill is good or bad. Many people have written commentaries or appeared on television or the radio and informed the world of why it will work and/or why it won’t work. Some are probably right and some are probably wrong----the reality is that we do not know for sure. There are some things we do know, however.

The first is that the economy is in woeful shape and things are not looking up. The stock market has been down and seems to be heading down further. The unemployment rate is rising and every day we read about lay offs or businesses closing. The automobile companies in looking to restructure are using the words, cut, cut, and cut over and over again.

The second thing we know is that what we were doing before did not work. Cutting the interest rates and taxes has placed the interest rates close to 0 and our taxes have been cut to the point that tax breaks are not having much of an impact on people. From what I have read the stimulus package has a tax cut for me and that I will be receiving a little less than $50.00 more in my pay each month. This is not going to stimulate a whole lot for our family.

The third thing is this. It is going to be very difficult to trust much of what comes by way of Congress. The children are calling the shots in a day when adults are badly needed. It used to be that when people were elected to Congress, most especially the Senate, they wanted to stay there. Obama wanted out. McCain wanted out. Clinton wanted out. Biden wanted out...

The list goes on. It makes me think that Hallmark should design a card for us to send to those who represent us in the United States Congress with two words on it:

Grow up!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Truly Disgusting

I enjoy Sloppy Joe sandwiches and I enjoy Krispy Kreme doughnuts. In terms of enjoying these two items, I plead guilty.

However, I recently ran into a nightmare combination.

They combined peanut butter with jelly and it was a hit.

Doughnuts are great with coffee.

But a Sloppy Joe on a Krispy Kreme? This is truly disgusting.

Monday, February 09, 2009

With Apologies to Katie Couric

I have to apologize to Katie Couric.

Some time back Katie did an interview with Alex Rodriquez and I felt like she had done a poor job. Her questions struck me as trite and obvious and I found very little to like about her interview with her.

I have to further apologize to Katie. Of the three major network anchors my favorite is Charlie Gibson and my least favorite has been Katie. To be quite honest and blunt, I felt Katie lacked the gravitas for the position. I had actually grown weary of her on "Today" and I felt that the step to the CBS Evening News was a bad step----for CBS.

But, my apologies to Katie, she has proven me to be wrong and proven that she does have the gravitas for this.

When Katie interviewed Sarah Palin Katie demonstrated that there were two women in the room; one with gravitas and one who thought gravitas was gravy in a French Restaurant. Couric turned Palin into something of a fricassee and Palin's candidacy became little more than fodder for "Saturday Night Live."

But, in the process of making a short story long, where Katie really has demonstrated something was her interview with A-Rod in 2007. To put it bluntly, she nailed is sorry behind to the wall:

For the record, have you ever used steroids, human growth hormone or any other performance-enhancing substance?" Couric asked.

"No," Rodriguez replied.

Asked if he had ever been tempted to use any of those things, Rodriguez told Couric, "No."

"You never felt like, 'This guy's doing it, maybe I should look into this, too? He's getting better numbers, playing better ball,'" Couric asked.

"I've never felt overmatched on the baseball field. I've always been a very strong, dominant position. And I felt that if I did my work as I've done since I was, you know, a rookie back in Seattle, I didn't have a problem competing at any level. So, no," he replied.

Now it turns out that A-Rod not only was tempted, but he did use steroids in 2003. Katie nailed him.

So, Katie, accept this apology from me! I still like Charlie Gibson the best, but you are certainly playing in the right league.

Cheaters Never Profit?

Anyone who knows me well knows that I enjoy professional sports. My favorite sport in the world is NFL football. My second favorite sport is Major League Baseball. I am a life long fan of the New York Mets and I have always enjoyed watching baseball. I actually watched baseball long before I was interested in football. It is easy to say, now, of course, that I enjoy football more than baseball, but I still do enjoy both.

Within the NFL there are problems. We hear and read of players being arrested all the time. Michael Vick is currently in prison and Plaxico Burress might soon be. Football is a violent game played by violent men and the results are often predictable. The NFL is actually very diligent in its enforcement of conduct by its players and Roger Goodell has made his presence well known as the commissioner.

One thing that is not tolerated in the NFL, and is ruthlessly hunted down is cheating.

The problem with baseball is that rampant cheating has been taking place.

Home Run records lasted a long time. Suddenly they began to fall, rapidly. We have found out that Sammy Sosa cheated drug wise and by juicing his bats with cork. Mark McGwire cheated and won a home run record. Barry Bonds cheated and won every home run record shortly afterwards. The most dominant pitcher was Roger Clemens and he cheated. Now, of course, the news is coming out that A-Rod cheated. Well, theoretically, I guess, he didn’t because there wasn’t a specific ‘rule’ at that point----but he juiced himself up to hit the ball better.

And then we come to a part of the problem. Records are being broken in baseball by people who cheated. Baseball Commissioner Bug Selig is not Roger Goodell. Whereas Goodell has made himself respected, even feared, within the NFL, Selig is little more than a puppet for the owners. Heck, he was an owner before becoming the commissioner. He is, by design, powerless.

And the great American game is going down the tubes and Selig is fiddling while baseball burns.

How do you fix it? Remove the records from the cheaters. They are ill-gotten gains. If a student was found to have cheated on an exam or plagiarized a paper, they would have their credit retroactively removed. Remove the records.

The next step is to remove the players from the league. Let A-Rod work at a place that requires the question, “Would you like fries with that?,” instead of letting him play each day.

And, finally, for those who lied under oath, they can join Michael Vick.

This cheating culture permeates American society. We are seeing it in sports, we see it in politics, we see it in business, we see it in Wall Street.

When I was growing up one of the ‘rules of the neighborhood’ was that ‘cheaters never profit.’ Sadly, they do and as long as they do, people will cheat. It would be nice if someone or some group, and baseball is a great place to start, would step in and assure that cheaters really do never profit.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Random Musings

Ah, time for moments of great randomness.

The best moment of the whole "Blago" tale took place on Letterman when the former Governor of Illinois said that he had wanted to be on Letterman's show in the worst way. Letterman than informed Blago that he WAS on the show in the worst way. Classic moment.

Major controversy in Philadelphia when McNabb said that the Eagles' defense lost the game for them. Of course, lost in all the controversy are two facts. First is that the defense is what got them to the game; and the second is that the defense actually did lose the game for them.

I am sure that the NFL officiating booth did look at the final play in the Super Bowl but it really should have had an official review. I mean, really, it was the Super Bowl. It was also a very good game. To say it was a better game than last year....please, let's get real.

A major study was done at Indiana University that concluded that women are a great deal more complicated than men. Let us stand, for a moment, in awe of this surprising conclusion. I bet the next study might be on men to find out of men really are generally more shallow than women...

Carly Fiorina made the observation that John McCain could not have run HP as the CEO. She made sure to say that Barack Obama couldn't have run HP as CEO either. But, as she was working for the McCain campaign, and she observed that her boss couldn't run a company she had been the CEO of, and he was running for the Presidency, she was shown the door. Quickly. If one reads about the 'success' of Fiorina at HP, however, one concludes that she couldn't run the company either and was noted for her excess----with her being the recipient of most of that excess. Now she is advising that CEO salaries shouldn't have a cap on them as is ordered for companies receiving bailout money. Following Fiorina's advice would be like a general reading "Great Italian Military Strategies During World War II," in trying to conduce a war.

Joe Torre's new book on the Yankees seems to indicate that life with the Yankees was often a bit bizarre. Now there is a great deal of controversy because Torre is stating the obvious.

Ashley Judd and Sarah Palin are doing battle with each other. I am sure that there is a joke in here someplace, but I simply can't find it.

Tom Daschle and the tax laws are so interesting. He was a lawmaker and either the tax law eluded him or he eluded paying the tax. Either way, he needed to step aside. I will say that I was heartened to hear Obama say, "I screwed up," in relation to this. I'm still waiting to hear someone else say it.

Nadya Suleman gave birth to octuplets (already having six children) and this is a major news story. I am still, for the life of me, trying to figure out how this is any of my business.

Pictures of Michael Phelps puffing on a bong, presumeably smoking marijuana has hit the Internet and the evening news. This might explain the large meals he was eating----the man had a major case of the munchies. The whole thing is shocking, a young man of his age smoking pot. It is just something that college aged students have never even remotely thought of.

To be serious, and not to justify it it any way, but leave the kid alone.

I wonder if Minnesota will ever have a Senator? Franken does not have the support of a certain talk show host. Franken, the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," has been criticized by Limbaugh of late. I'm thinking that Franken might have offended Limbaugh in some way. One would gather that Limbaugh, usually the epitome of class would have found Franken's tone a bit sarcastic. Considering my dislike of saracasm...

Actually, seriously, that kind of tone is dreadful and Franken, in writing that book became as offensive as his subject. That kind of tone accomplishes nothing very worthwhile or good.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

From the Catholic News Service

Evidently the Vatican making a strong statement now, which is excellent:

Vatican: Bishop's Holocaust statements 'strongly rejected' by pope

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican said a traditionalist bishop who has minimized the full extent of the Holocaust must disavow his positions before he will be accepted into full communion with the church.

A Vatican statement Feb. 4 said Pope Benedict XVI did not know about the controversial statements by British-born Bishop Richard Williamson when he lifted the excommunication of him and three other traditionalist bishops ordained illicitly in 1988.

"The positions of Bishop Williamson on the Holocaust are absolutely unacceptable and are strongly rejected by the Holy Father," the statement said.

In order to function as a bishop, Bishop Williamson must distance himself from his previous statements in "an absolutely unequivocal and public manner," the Vatican said.

In a statement meant to deflect the increasing public outcry over the papal decree lifting the excommunication, the Vatican said the decree did not change the juridical status of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, which still has no canonical recognition in the Catholic Church.

The society was founded by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who also incurred automatic excommunication when he ordained the four bishops against papal orders. The society has not accepted the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council and its concepts of religious freedom and ecumenism.

The statement from the Secretariat of State said the society would have to recognize the teachings of Vatican II and of post-conciliar popes to be in full communion.

It said the four bishops at present do not have a canonical function in the church and "do not licitly exercise a ministry in the church."

The Vatican has emphasized that even after the removal of the excommunications remaining problems need to be resolved before full communion can be established with the society's leadership and members.

The Secretariat of State statement -- like a statement the previous day from the Vatican press spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi -- reiterated the German-born pope's remarks at his Jan. 28 audience, in which he recalled the suffering of Jews during World War II and said the Holocaust should stand as a "warning to everyone against forgetting, denying or minimizing" evil.

Father Lombardi said the pope's words at the general audience were "unequivocal."

The spokesman said the pope had spoken about the horror of the Holocaust in his 2005 visit to a German synagogue and in his 2006 visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He said the papal statement at the Jan. 28 audience "could not have been clearer, and from the context it is apparent that it referred to the positions of Bishop Williamson and to all similar positions."

"On the same occasion, the pope also clearly expressed the reason for removing the excommunication, which has nothing to do with legitimizing positions denying the Holocaust -- positions which were clearly condemned by the pope," the spokesman said.

Father Lombardi's statement was released by the Vatican press office late the same day that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the pope and the Vatican needed to make clear there could be no denial of the Holocaust.

At a news conference in Berlin Feb. 3, Merkel said she normally did not comment on church matters "but we are talking about fundamental questions."

"This is not just a matter, in my opinion, for the Christian, Catholic and Jewish communities in Germany, but the pope and the Vatican should clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial" of the Holocaust, she said.

On Jan. 21, the same day the pope lifted the excommunication, a Swedish television station aired a November interview with Bishop Williamson in which he repeated his position that the Holocaust had been exaggerated.

The papal decree lifting the excommunication was made public Jan. 24 and Jewish groups -- especially in Germany, the U.S. and Israel --expressed shock that the Vatican would lift the excommunication against Bishop Williamson even after his comments had been televised.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who coordinates the Vatican's dialogue with the Jews, said the controversy was fueled in part by a lack of communication within the Vatican and by "management errors in the Curia."

Cardinal Kasper said he has been following the unfolding controversy "with great concern."

He said the pope "wanted to open the discussion because he wanted unity inside and outside" the church. But the cardinal said he "would have also liked to see more communication in advance."

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called on the Pope to clarify his positions on the Holocaust, most especially Holocaust denials, by lifting the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson a Bishop ordained by the Society of Pius X. As posted here, Williamson believes that the Nazis were 'only' responsible for the deaths of between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews during the Second World War and there was no gassing in the camps.

Merkel is incensed at the action of the German Pope and is demanding a clarification. This is all big time stuff as the leader of Germany is putting the Pope, a German citizen, in the position of clarifying an ethical position. It is also painfully obvious that the Pope is on the wrong side of this ethical position at the moment and his home country is incensed.

The Vatican, which generally has had the same famous openness as the Kremlin always did, is denying a problem and saying that the Pope's position is already clear.

I think not.

First, very tragically, in terms of ethical credibility, the Vatican's is low. Very low. This is the same Vatican that made Cardinal Law something of an ambassador in Vatican City (a sovereign nation) so he would not face charges on clergy sexual abuse coverups in Boston. This is a Vatican that turned a blind eye on years of sexual abuse by clergy inflicted on minors.

Secondly, there is that old adage about actions and words. The action of the Vatican, by lifting the excommication off of Williamson speaks far louder than any words spoken by the Pope or anyone else. When one considers that there are still huge questions that remain unanswered about Pius XII and the Holocaust, these current actions speak very, very loudly.

In one of those amazing moments in history, we are seeing the nation of Germany, led by Chancellor Merkel, take a very high road, demanding a world that recognizes the Holocaust and the evil that transpired during those terrible years. And, conversely, a Vatican turning a blind and denying eye on the events of history. Angela Merkel is taking the high road. The Pope, it appears, is hiding on the subway...

Rational Faith

One of the most pressing questions people have in regards to religious faith is this. Can faith be reasonable? By reasonable, my definition is in terms of this: Can a rational and reasonable person remain a rational and reasonable person and still have faith in God? As I like to consider myself to be a rational and reasonable person who has faith in God, my answer is obviously in the affirmative.

Having said this, the largest ‘religious’ growth group is that of people who do not have any faith in a supreme being or are highly skeptical. What is interesting is that in questioning people about their lack of faith the issue is often a lot less about an idea of God and a lot more on how religion is practiced. As people lose faith in religion they lose faith in God.

There are lots of good reasons to lose faith in religion. I have often felt that the best evangelists for atheism are Christians. This comes from several different directions.

The first direction is that many ‘believers’ make people of faith appear to be ignorant and unwilling to embrace science and or technological development. I sat, watching in amazement, that a person was explaining that modern science has proven that the world is 6000 years old and that dinosaurs and people lived side by side with each other in those days. The fact that this allegedly modern science is discounted by the vast majority of the scientific community which is actually almost speechless at hearing on how things were dated, seemed to have eluded the presenter. To be frank, this struck me as coming from the Fred Flintstone School of Science. I watched the television and found myself saying, “Dino, Daddy’s home!”

Modern day science and good theology are not incompatible. Bad theology and science, are, however. When people are continually confronted with a bad theological world view they will embrace Flintstone Science and make everyone who is a person of faith looks ignorant. Faith does not require being ignorant.

A second issue is this. People often confuse certitude with faith.

Faith, by its very definition, requires a step into the unknown and the unknowable. It requires that ‘leap of faith’ from reason to pure belief in something that cannot be proven. World religions are built on faith in a Supreme Being, not certitude. Certitude is something that can be proven, objectively, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Strong faith has a strong belief in something; but that strong belief cannot be proven. Anecdotal witnessing is wonderful and inspirational, but it proves very little other than the conviction of the person doing the witnessing.

When people of faith claim to ‘know’ God’s will, and ‘know’ what God has called them to do and that they ‘know’ God, they are not witnessing to faith. They are making claims of certitude and certitude (not doubt) is actually the opposite of faith. And, because they claim certitude, a certitude that they can only witness to, but never prove, they often repel people who are seeking.

A third point is this, and I’m using Christianity as an example. Christianity is not about politics. When people speak of religious voting blocks it is often a strange image considering that Christianity is founded on faith in Christ and the teachings of Jesus, and Jesus was remarkable apolitical.

Jesus’ ‘render unto Caesar’ moment was so interesting because Jesus demonstrated little to know interest in Caesar. His indifference to Caesar was readily apparent. Later, facing death, Jesus treated Pontius Pilate with complete indifference. In a day and age when people were looking for a leader to rise up against the Romans, Jesus was preaching about a Kingdom not of this world. In terms of morality, Jesus had two major topics. They were ill treatment of the impoverished and self-righteousness. Jesus found the self-righteousness of the crowd wanting to stone an adulterous woman to be significantly more appalling than the woman’s sex life. He did tell her to ‘sin no more,’ which means he acknowledged that she had done wrong, but her adultery was not the burning issue in his life.

In the conventions of the two major parties this past summer God was mentioned a lot. It appeared that both parties were running with God on their side. I strongly doubt that neither party would have ever thought of inviting Jesus to speak to their conventions because Jesus’ words to them might have peeled the pain off the walls of the hall or melted the stadium seats. Yet everyone wanted God on their side; a far easier claim with God in Heaven rather than on the floor...

Is faith rational? Yes. Within limits. Faith does require a leap into the unknown; but leaping into the unknown is not unreasonable. It only becomes unreasonable when we make it so.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Beyond Boundaries: Sunday Sermon

Beyond Boundaries
Text: Mark 1:21-28
Rev. Dr. John E. Manzo
February 1, 2009

Every few years we United Church of Christ clergy attend an event called boundary training.

It is, on one level, a friendly reminder to us to not get engaged in improper behavior with members of the church. On the other hand, it often ends up being an adventure into telling pastors to keep their distance from the members of the church. After our last session I was afraid to smile at anyone from St. Marks. Well, that’s an exaggeration. A little. Ultimately there is a value of boundaries but there are certain areas when people are called to move beyond boundaries.

Mark tells us of a significant moment in Jesus’ ministry that moves not only beyond boundaries, but leaps over them in a single bound.

Jesus lived in an era and a culture of strict boundaries. In Judaism there was a boundary of clean/unclean, pure/impure. It was part of a greater cultural boundary of honor and shame.

Some passages require an insight into the ancient world and how world views differed from our’s.

The ancient world, the Middle East, Rome, and Greece, for example, lived on the premise of honor and shame. One did all they could to cultivate and live lives of honor; one avoided shame. Shame was the ultimate bad thing.

To give an example of this using modern times and that era.

If a person from that era was captured and given an option of having their fingernails removed forcibly, inflicting great pain upon them, or running down the street naked to humiliate them, they would choose the pain over the humiliation. There is honor in pain; shame in humiliation.

Most of us would not particular want to stroll down the street naked, but if we could avoid the pain, we’d do so. We are not a society that lives on the premise of honor and shame like they did.

There was a huge boundary between honor and shame. And, in particular to the Jewish culture of the era, that boundary was also about pure and impure, clean and unclean.

It starts with this. Jesus entered into a Synagogue. A Synagogue, like a church, was a sacred place, a place of Worship and prayer, a place where God dwelled in a special way.

Into this sacred place a man with an unclean spirit enters.

There was a proper response. Ignore the man and leave. He was unclean, he was impure, he was the personification of shame. He brought all that was filthy into the Synagogue and everyone was expected to depart----and come back another day to purify what the man defiled. The man was to be ignored and fled from. That was the rule.

Yet Jesus, instead of fleeing, instead of living within the boundaries of the times and traditions not only did not leave, he confronted the man and confronted the demons. In doing so he defies every boundary of his time and people.

The narrative continues:

What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."

25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!"

The man, through the demons speak an Jesus tells them to shut up and compels the evil spirits out.

Jesus teaches us a couple of incredibly profound lessons on when it is a good thing to cross over boundaries.

The first one is this. Evil and impurity are not so much to be fled, but to be encountered with goodness. The way to combat evil is to be better than it and confront it.

One of the hallmark differences between good ane evil is that evil seeks to divide people and good seems to always try to unite people.

Adolf Hitler taught hate by division. Love people like you; hate those not like you. Josef Stalin did likewise. Charles Manson did the same thing. Osama Bin Laden does the same thing. People who are like this are good; people who are like that are evil. Create labels and division and create large boundaries to maintain that separation.

Goodness does otherwise. People who strive to do good seek to unite people. They put labels aside and speak to everyone. They confront evil by attempting to lower the boundaries and by trying to be above that which is evil. Jesus’s goodness was always so present in breaching the boundaries and in John’s Gospel when his prayer is that all may be one....words of great goodness and grace.

The second thing is this. We are challenged to recognize that many boundaries are artificial and need to be crossed.

There is a legend about Merlin teaching the young Arthur about boundaries. Merlin turns Arthur into a hawk:

From the earth, Merlin shouts to Arthur, “What do you see?”

Arthur shouts back, “I see rivers and trees.”

“No,” an irritated Merlin responds and repeats his question. “What do you see?”

“I see villages and...”

“Come down,” orders Merlin. Arthur, the hawk, returns to earth and becomes Arthur, the young boy. Merlin tells him, “Someday you will know what you saw.”

The theologian John Shea tells us that the day that Arthur knew what he saw was the day Camelot died. He realized what he had seen was a world without boundaries, limitless possibilities. It wasn’t until the dream died and new boundaries were in place, that he realized what he had seen.

St. Paul wrote in Galatians:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The words of St. Paul are these. In Christ, there are no limits, there are no boundaries. In Christ, the power of God’s love is a power without any limits on it. Those boundaries, those limits are usually created by us, but never God.

Truth be told, I live most of my life with a sense of boundaries and I actually do see a great deal of value in the boundary training we receive. Some of it is, frankly, silly, but much of it is very valid and important. There are boundaries that we all do live by and those boundaries are appropriate and good.

We are reminded, however, that God has no boundaries in His love for us. God will confront anything evil, anything impure, anything unjust with great power, great goodness, and great love. And invites us to do likewise.

Jesus confronts demons in the most unlikely place, the most sacred space, freeing those around him from the boundaries of hatred and the darkness of despair, and inviting everyone into a world of love filled with the light of Christ.